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Meet The Democrats Vying To Fill Joe Barton’s Seat And Break 3 Decades Of Republican Rule

Left: Campaign Facebook page; right: Christopher Connelly/KERA News
Democrats Jana Lynne Sanchez (left) and Ruby Faye Woolridge (right) are competing for Republican Joe Barton's congressional seat, which is open for the first time since the '80s.

When Republican Congressman Joe Barton announced he’d retire after 34 years in the House, 16 Democratic and Republican candidates campaigned to win the open seat.

Now, the Democratic field has narrowed to two.

In the March primary, Ruby Faye Woolridge came out in the lead, but just barely. Nineteen votes separated her from Jana Lynne Sanchez. The two Democrats are challenging each other again in the May 22 runoff.

Returning candidate with connections

Ruby Faye Woolridge has been a teacher, a counselor, and is a longtime activist in Arlington.

“Everything I do is from that philosophy of ‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can,’” she said.

Woolridge moved to Arlington in 1984. That’s the same year that Republican Joe Barton was first elected to Congress. He’s represented the district ever since. She ran against him in 2016 and lost by 20 points. But she says this year is different: The seat is open, and the district is ready for a Democrat.

“It’s an old saying that everything reaches its own level, right?” she said. “I think we’re at a spilling point with his philosophy and the Republican philosophy because when I moved here in ‘84, things were humming, the quality of life was at its apex. I can’t say that anymore.”

Woolridge knows the district well — she has connections in Ellis and Navarro Counties from her last run. But much of the effort of her campaign is focused on Tarrant County. She points to a map in her campaign headquarters to explain.

“This is 70 percent of the vote,” she says. “In this one little section here, of Tarrant County.”

Places like Arlington, Fort Worth, Dalworthington Gardens, Pantego and Kennedale.

"When I moved here in '84, things were humming, the quality of life was at its apex. I can't say that anymore."

Both the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News endorsed Woolridge in the March primary — so did much of the local Democratic establishment. On policy issues, Woolridge says universal health care is a top priority; she likes a mix of negotiating better drug prices and the option to buy into Medicare. She also wants to foster more apprenticeship programs and raise the minimum wage.

But she says if she wins, her first days in Washington will be more practical.

“Getting to understand the role that I’ll be playing, getting to meet people with like-minded philosophies whether they’re independents, Republicans or Democrats,” she said. “I’ll first look within my own party, but realizing there’s some that are on the other side of the aisle that are looking for the same things.

“I don’t want to come in like it’s some whirlwind,” she continued. “But I want to build relationships with people who have common values with me – people who value family, people who want to improve the lives of the citizens they serve, whether they’re on the Republican side or the Democratic side.”

Political newcomer with money

Across town in South Arlington, on a sunny afternoon, Woolridge’s Democratic competitor — Jana Lynne Sanchez — is knocking on doors.

A man opens a door.

“I’m Jana Lynne Sanchez, how are you doing?” she asks. “Good, good! I came by to ask you for your vote.”

Sanchez is a former journalist and public relations consultant who grew up in Waxahachie. She’s the granddaughter of migrant Mexican workers. She spent most of her adult life away but came back in 2014 to take care of her aging parents. She says she was shocked by the 2016 presidential election.

“I felt like I had to stand up and be part of fixing this country – like, how did we get to this point? Why did people start hating each other like this?”

Still, when a friend suggested she run for Congress, she laughed. Then, she started doing research.

“I looked at all the numbers, what people had raised in the past, what kinds of campaigns they ran, what kinds of messages they had put together,” she said. “I felt that I could do it better.”

"I felt like I had to stand up and be part of fixing this country — like, how did we get to this point?"

Even though this seat has been held by a Republican for decades, Sanchez says Democrats should be able to win it, but they haven’t done enough in the past.

Sanchez has raised more money than any Democrat running for the seat since 1984 — twice what Woolridge has raised. Sanchez has gotten funding from national progressive political action committees.

If Sanchez gets to Washington, she says she’ll focus on bread and butter issues.

“People are very concerned about health care, they're concerned about education, they’re concerned about immigration and they’re concerned about good jobs,” she said. “It’s one thing for the employment rate to be low. It’s another thing for people to be able to make a living and afford health care and afford everything they need in order to have a good living.”

The question now is who Democrats will pick on May 22 — and if they’ll show up in large enough numbers to win next fall.

More: There is also a runoff for the Republican nomination in the 6th Congressional District. Learn more about candidates Ron Wright and Jake Ellzey in a story coming Thursday.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.